CHERNIHIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian troops left behind crushed buildings, streets littered with destroyed cars, and residents in dire need of food and other aid in a northern Ukrainian city, giving fuel to Kyiv’s calls Thursday for more Western support to help halt Moscow’s offensive before it refocuses on the country’s east.
Dozens of people lined up for food, diapers, and medicine at a shattered school now serving as an aid-distribution point in Chernihiv, which Russian forces besieged for weeks as part of their attempt to sweep south towards the capital. In chalk on the blackboard in one classroom read: “Wednesday the 23rd of February—class work.” Russia invaded the next day.
Ukraine’s foreign minister begged again Thursday for “weapons, weapons and weapons” from NATO—and the western alliance agreed, spurred into action by atrocities revealed in the wake of the recent Russian withdrawal from areas around Ukraine’s capital.
Ukrainian officials said hundreds of bodies of civilians were found, many lying in the street, in towns around Kyiv. Associated Press journalists saw dozens in the suburb of Bucha, some burned, others apparently shot at close range or with their hands bound.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba became emotional while referring to the horrors in the town, telling reporters in Brussels on Thursday that they couldn’t understand “how it feels after seeing pictures from Bucha, talking to people who escaped, knowing that the person you know was raped four days in a row.”
Ukrainian and several Western leaders have blamed the massacres on Moscow’s troops, and the weekly Der Spiegel reported Thursday that Germany’s foreign intelligence agency had intercepted radio messages between Russian soldiers discussing the killings of civilians in the town. Russia has falsely claimed that the scenes in Bucha were staged.
Russia’s 6-week-old invasion failed to take Ukraine’s capital quickly and achieve what Western countries said was President Vladimir Putin’s initial aim of ousting the Ukrainian government. In the wake of that failure and heavy losses, Russia shifted its focus to the Donbas, a mostly Russian-speaking, industrial region in eastern Ukraine.
Ahead of that new offensive, Russian forces are pulling back from several areas in northern Ukraine and moving to Belarus or back to Russia to regroup. It’s not clear how long it will take them to redeploy, and Ukrainian officials have urged people in the country to leave before the fighting intensifies. Already, Britain’s Defense Ministry said Thursday that Russia was targeting the “line of control” between Ukrainian-held areas and those held by Russia-backed rebels in the Donbas with artillery and airstrikes.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Ukrainian and Russian officials agreed to establish civilian evacuation routes Thursday from several areas in the Donbas. But later, the head of Ukraine’s national railway system said Russian shelling blocked the evacuation of residents from some eastern areas. Oleksandr Kamyshin said on Telegram that the shelling blocked the only railway line that Ukraine controls leading from two cities in the Donetsk region of the Donbas.
“The situation in Donbas is heating up and we understand that April will be quite hot, so those who have the opportunity to leave—women, children, the elderly—need to stay in a safe place,” Borys Filatov, the mayor of Dnipro, a city that lies just west of the Donbas, said at a briefing.
Even as Ukraine braced for a new phase of the war, Russia’s withdrawal brought some relief to Chernihiv, which lies near Ukraine’s northern border with Belarus and was cut off for weeks. The departed troops left behind twisted buildings and traumatized residents, who clambered over rubble and passed cars destroyed by the fighting.
Vladimir Tarasovets, a resident, described nights during the siege when he watched the city on fire and listened to the sound of shelling. “It was very hard, very hard. Every evening there were fires, it was scary to look at the city. In the evening, when it was dark, there was no light, no water, no gas, no amenities at all,” he said. “How did we go through it? I have no words to describe how we managed.”
Many have left the city, some joining the more than 4 million refugees who have fled Ukraine since the war started. Tatiana Nesterenko, who headed to Medyka in Poland, said she spent 40 days hiding out in her basement. ”Our home was destroyed by an airstrike,” she said. “There was no help, no volunteers for us. We extinguished the fire by ourselves.”
Revulsion over the invasion of Ukraine grew stronger over the past week as images revealed what some Western leaders called war crimes in areas around the capital that Russian forces had held. The revelations in Bucha have led Western nations to step up sanctions, including an American move to sanction Putin’s two adult daughters and toughen penalties against Russian banks.
Britain banned investment in Russia and pledged to end its dependence on Russian coal and oil by the end of the year, while the European Union is expected to impose an embargo on Russian coal. The U.N. General Assembly, meanwhile, voted Thursday to suspend Russia from the world organization’s leading human rights body over the allegations.
Der Spiegel reported that individual radio messages dealing with the murder of civilians may be linked to pictures of bodies found in Bucha. The outlet reported that Germany’s BND intelligence agency informed lawmakers about this information Wednesday. In one radio message, a Russian soldier reportedly informs another how he and others shot dead a person on a bicycle. In another message, a speaker allegedly recounts how the Russian military interrogated enemy soldiers before killing them.
The International Criminal Court opened an investigation into possible war crimes in Ukraine before the grim discoveries near Kyiv fueled more urgent calls for the perpetrators of civilian atrocities to be brought to justice. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, meanwhile, has accused Russian forces of removing dead bodies in an attempt to cover up war crimes in areas still under their control, “afraid that the global anger over what was seen in Bucha would be repeated.” In a Wednesday night video address, he said, “This is only an attempt to hide the evidence and nothing more.”
Overnight, Russia kept up its barrage on several cities, striking fuel storage sites around Mykolaiv, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, and Chuguev using cruise missiles fired from ships in the Black Sea. A Ukrainian naval vessel, meanwhile, caught fire under unclear circumstances in the besieged port city of Mariupol, satellite photos analyzed Thursday by The Associated Press show. The images from Planet Labs PBC appear to show the Ukrainian command ship Donbas burning at the Sea of Azov port on Wednesday afternoon as a nearby building also burned.
Mariupol has experienced some of the war’s greatest deprivations, and the mayor said Wednesday that more than 5,000 civilians have been killed there, including 210 children. British defense officials estimate that 160,000 people remain trapped in the city, which had a prewar population of 430,000. Russian forces are fighting street by street to capture the city; doing so would allow it to secure a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Since the war started, Russia and Ukraine have held talks, both by video link and in person, but have not found common ground to end the fighting. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday accused Ukraine of backtracking on proposals it had made over Crimea and Ukraine’s military status. Lavrov accused Washington and its allies of pushing Ukraine to keep fighting but said Russia intended to continue the talks.